Why a Standard Lens is Perfect for Street and Travel Photography

Standard lenses (also called normal lenses) have a kind of mystique amongst photographers. Perhaps it’s because Henri Cartier-Bresson was famous for using one, maybe it has something to do with nostalgia for the times when most cameras came with a 50mm kit lens rather than the zooms that are common today. Regardless, if you are looking for a versatile prime lens for street or travel photography then a standard lens is an excellent choice. My 35mm prime (a standard lens on an APS-C camera) has become my favorite lens for street and travel photography.

prime lens

f/1.4

Let’s start with some definitions.

A standard lens for a full-frame or 35mm film camera is a 50mm prime (one exception – Pentax makes a 43mm f/1.9 lens).

For an APS-C system a 35mm prime lens (such as the excellent 35mm f/1.4 lens made by Fujifilm) is a standard lens. Some photographers also consider a 28mm lens to be a standard.

For a Micro four-thirds camera you need a 25mm prime.

Last year I took a wide-angle lens, a standard lens and a short telephoto lens with me on a five week trip to China. I used them all for street photography, but when I analyzed the photos afterwards I realized that over 90% of them were taken with the standard lens (a 35mm f/1.4 prime). That trend continued during a later trip to Spain.

Here are some of the reasons that I used the standard lens so much more than the others, combined with some tips for making the most from them yourself.

1. Standard lenses have wide maximum apertures

Standard lenses typically have a maximum aperture somewhere between f/1.2 and f/2. This helps you take photos in low light, or use the wide aperture settings for selective focus, or both. This is really useful if you take photos in a street market or some other lively location at night, or inside a dimly lit building.

The photo above, taken in a historical building in Hangzhou, is a good example. The light was so low that I had to set the aperture to f/1.4 and ISO to 6400 to take the photo.

2. Standard lenses let you take photos in the street without getting too close to people

Standard lenses let you take candid photos of people in the street without getting too close. In China, I found that most people ignored me as I took photos with my 35mm lens. It may have helped that the Fuijfilm camera I used (an X-T1) is much smaller than a digital SLR and less intimidating. It may also have helped that the Chinese are such keen photographers that another person with a camera doesn’t draw much attention.

From a practical point of view, the standard lens lets you take photos of people without getting so close to them that you invade their personal space.

I spotted this man by the entrance of a restaurant in Hangzhou. His clothing and thoughtful pose caught my eye – I believe he was there to encourage people to come into the restaurant. It was only afterwards that I realized there was an interesting juxtaposition between him and the statue to his left.

You can take environmental portraits like this very easily with a standard lens.

travel photography with a prime lens

Street Photography

3. You can use a standard lens to simplify the background

Street scenes are naturally chaotic, and it’s the photographer’s job to make some kind of visual order from this. The narrower field of view of standard lenses (compared to wide-angle lenses) means that you naturally include less background in your images. You can also throw the background at least slightly out of focus by selecting an aperture of f2.8 or wider. This is much harder to do with wide-angle lenses.

An image like this, taken in a street market in Xi’an, has a much tighter background than you would be able to get with a wide-angle lens. That helped me exclude other people from the scene and focus attention on the woman.

portrait with standard lens

Simplify the Background

4. You can use a standard lens to capture details

Standard lenses are good for capturing details. Street photography is not just about making portraits. You can build up a feeling for a place by photographing details that capture its character and spirit.

Most standard lenses can focus quite closely to the subject, making them a very versatile lens for travel photography.

This photo of fish taken in a market in Cadiz, Spain is a good example.

fish market prime lens

Details

5. Use a standard lens to make a portrait of somebody with permission.

Standard lenses are ideal for portraits. They work well if you stop people in the street and ask if you can take their photo. While you could argue that a longer focal length will help you take portraits with a more flattering perspective, the advantage of a standard lens is that it is smaller and less intimidating to the person that you have approached. You are much more likely to get a natural response.

Earlier this year I went to Carnival in Cadiz. There were lots of people in costume, but only a few with face paint. When I saw somebody with interesting face paint I asked if I could take a photo. Every time I asked, the person said yes, and I took a couple of photos.

Here is one of them.

mime portrait

Portraits with Permission

6. You can capture scenes including people for scale or context

Standard lenses are good for capturing scenes which include people to give scale or context. The angle of view is wide enough that the people in your photo, if you are far away, are not bothered about being in it. They will probably think you are taking a photo of the scene behind them, especially if it is picturesque and worthy of a snapshot. If the person is positioned on a third, or at the edge of the frame, then the camera won’t be pointing directly at them. Even if they notice you they don’t feel threatened by it.

portrait prime lens

People for Scale or Context

This photo, taken in Beijing, shows a local woman amongst some of the beautiful architecture by Beihei Lake.

About the Author:
Andrew S Gibson is a professional photographer based in New Zealand. He has taken photographs in 60 countries now as a Technical Editor for EOS magazine. He produced a Mastering Lenses guide for photographers.

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3 responses to “Why a Standard Lens is Perfect for Street and Travel Photography”

  1. A.U. Daniels says:

    I use Nikon DX (APS-C) cameras and lenses. One of my lenses is the wonderful, slightly above normal DX AF-S 40mm f2.8G. It is great for street photography (equivalent to 60 mm full-frame), is super sharp, and also does
    true micro-photography down to 1 to 1. Plus, it is quite inexpensive. By your standards, it is slightly slow (f2.8) but I think that is not much problem with the noise-free higher ISO settings now prevalent.

  2. Peter Blaise says:

    .
    Thanks, [ A.U. Daniels ], for your great exploration and examples.

    3 thoughts:

    ==========

    Fallacy 1:

    “Standard” and “normal” are often variable, non-definitive descriptions for a lens with a focal length where the photographer’s-capture-perception compared to the-audience’s-print-perception is perceived as equivalent, “free of perspective distortion”.

    Any lens, and subsequent presentation, where the taking and viewing perspectives are in balance, produces a “standard” or “normal” experience.

    What does “perspective distortion” mean?

    That means that the perspective of the photographer relative to their photographic subject is essentially equivalent to the perspective of the audience when they view the resulting presentation image.

    If there is significant disparity between the perspective of the photographer versus the perspective of the audience, then there is likely to be a perception of “distortion”.

    A system’s “distortion” is defined as a change in what the system is handling from input to output.

    This is commented on as “compression” when a photographer captures a far-focus image with a telephoto lens, and the audience views the print up close, arm’s-length or less.

    This is commented on as “distortion” when a photographer captures a close-focus image with a wide-angle lens, and the audience views the print from a greater distance, arm’s-length or more.

    All a telephoto lens does is magnify and effectively crop in-camera, but the distant objects really do look exactly like that to the naked eye without a camera, there is no “compression”, no distortion.

    All a close-focus wide-angle lens does is reduce and effectively stitch in-camera, the close object really does look exactly like that to the naked eye without a camera, there is no “distortion”.

    Telephoto lenses and wide-angle lenses take the same pictures, they would just have to be reduced and stitched, or magnified and cropped, in post production to produce what would then be perceived as the same image.

    It’s just easier to do all that in-camera ( at full capture resolution ).

    Yes, we have a traditional 3 manufacturer’s marketing divisions in the range of photographic lenses:

    — wide-angle lenses ( in 35mm film photography, 34mm focal length or shorter ),

    — “standard” or “normal” lenses ( in 35mm film photography, 35mm focal length to 59mm focal length ),

    — telephoto lenses, ( in 35mm film photography, 60mm focal length or longer ).

    Considering that any lens can produce what appears to the audience as a “standard” or “normal” image, depending only on presentation perspective matching the photographer’s capturing perspective, then any focal length lens can be considered “standard” or “normal”.

    It depends. ;-)

    ==========

    Fallacy 2:

    A prime lens is the primary image-forming lens in a photographic system, and can be a multi-focal-length prime lens, or single-focal-length prime lens.

    Zeiss and others had prime zooms in the catalogs … until most recently when their audience became no longer cinematographers with science degrees, but kiddies who’s first videos were on their cell phones, and who were confused by a “prime zoom”, and so, ‘prime’ is losing it’s meaning as ‘primary’.

    A secondary lens, by way of complementary explanation, is any supplemental lens that is not image-forming in and of itself, such as a teleconverter behind the primary lens, or a diopter in front of the primary lens, and they too can be multi-focal or single-focal.

    For a scientific photographer, primary and secondary lens characteristics can be calculated before choosing in order to produce the desired result, and thus, primary lenses and secondary lenses have specific non-ambiguous scientific meaning.

    ==========

    Fallacy 3:

    Photography in public is not a permissioned activity.

    We can ask for someone’s cooperation.

    But we do not need anyone’s permission.

    Fostering the ‘permission’ fallacy only perpetuates the erroneous beliefs:

    — others have superior rights over our own photography,

    — others can stop us from photographing in public,

    — others can report us to the police if we appear to be using a camera in public,

    — police and especially private security guards can stop us from photographing,

    — others can take possession of our camera,

    — others can destroy our captured images.

    Destroying our captures images is a violation of international copyright treaties, where we own the copyright of our images from the moment of capture of even the latent image, with significant statutory fines for destroying someone else’s copyright intellectual property.

    This is not about publishing, which is a totally unrelated legal arena.

    ==========

    Thanks again for an excellent and provocative presentation.

    .

  3. Peter Blaise says:

    Oops, I scrolled and first saw [ A.U. Daniels ] and cut-and-pasted that as the author of the opening post, in error, sorry, [ Andrew S Gibson ], please fix it or tell me how to edit or repost my own prior comment — thanks.

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